With their 2016 opponents now set, the sledding won't get any easier as they pulled a schedule of games including two of the toughest divisions: the AFC North and the NFC West. Most fans are now left worrying what the team's offseason plan may be with many key players expected to hit free agency in March. What will the Jets do now?
Here's the Jets list of pending unrestricted free agents, bolded are strategic keepers:
QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, DE Muhammad Wilkerson, OLB Calvin Pace, DT Damon Harrison, RB Bilal Powell, RB Chris Ivory, S Jaiquawn Jarrett, RB Stevan Ridley, DE Leger Douzable, CB Darrin Walls, DE Stephen Bowen, RG Willie Colon, TE Kellen Davis, ILB Jamari Lattimore, LT Ben Ijalana, S Antonio Allen, ILB Erin Henderson, ILB Demario Davis, WR Chris Owusu, K Randy Bullock.
There's a number of players that would seem shocking to deprioritize in free agency, but when you start adding up the money, there's just not that much room unless Muhammad Wilkerson and the Jets can settle on a long-term deal to free up cap space this season.
Calvin Pace has been a long-time part of this team but he might not see a contract until almost the start of training camp, if at all. Chris Ivory is a punishing runner, but at the price he will want to stay and for the amount he gets dinged up, the Jets must get younger (and cheaper) through the draft.
Leger Douzable has been a good contributor, but the Jets might have to choose between him and Stephen Bowen, who could come more cheaply. Willie Colon has reached the end of his career and the Jets can't rely on him to start going forward. There's also no sense sinking money into him as a backup.
Demario Davis saw his playing time reduced to almost nothing at the end of the season in favor of Erin Henderson -- a player the Jets could acquire more cheaply and backfill with a longer-term answer through the draft. The team must get better at the coverage linebacker spot and it doesn't appear paying Davis will be the answer.
So with up to $45 million in potential free cap space, who would the Jets bring back from their list of free agents?
QB Ryan Fitzpatrick - A year ago or even at the start of this NCAA season, there were a number of names that were floated as potential first-round quarterbacks -- names like Connor Cook, Christian Hackenberg and Jared Goff.
Now, even the first-round prospects seem more dubious and Paxton Lynch has entered the equation. In short, some of those players might be available to the Jets at the 20th pick or even into the second round.
It is still early but the traditional scout and metrics scouting communities are unsure about how ready they are to jump in from Week 1 in 2016. That all leads the Jets back to Fitzpatrick, who had a good season, but arguably crumbled under the pressure in the Week 17 game against the Bills.
Fitz has proven to be a competent quarterback for the Jets and the team should do what it takes to sign him to a two-year or phantom third-year contract for well under the $16 million per year which Andy Dalton and Carson Palmer are getting. There might be other teams willing to pay him more, but he knows his best shot at relevance before his career ends will be in New York in a comfortable offense with solid weapons. (Three-year deal, average/year of $12 million)
DE Muhammad Wilkerson -- The news Monday that Wilkerson broke his leg against the Bills is sad, but not news that will discount his price at the negotiating table. If anything, there might be less other interested parties through free agency, but not by much. Wilkerson wants big money - and it would be cost-advantageous for the Jets to give him that deal this year if they want to free up other cap spac, but if the Jets are unwilling to offer a long-term deal, I fully expect them to apply the franchise tag. (DE franchise tag, $15.5 million)
RB Bilal Powell - Over the end of the 2015 season, Powell proved to be an invaluable asset in moving the ball in the passing game and as a change of pace running back. With few other options beyond Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, Powell carved out a solid role and he could be a valuable piece for the team again next year. (Two-year deal with average/year of $2.5 million)
DE Stephen Bowen & ILB Erin Henderson - Both players wound up playing key reserve roles for the team and showed well in limited action, but increasing time at the end of the season. Both would be economical adds to keep the front-seven rotation sound while the team looks for long-term solutions. (One-year deal for $1 million each)
DT Damon Harrison - The biggest unknown looks to be Harrison. One gets the sense that he understands this is his best opportunity for a big contract and he will take whatever the highest offer is - wherever it may be.
The good news for the Jets is twofold: releasing Quinton Coples freed up a solid amount of space to make a run at re-signing Harrison viable and the top defensive tackles make far less than their defensive end brethren. Players like Vince Wilfork, Terrance Knighton and Sammie Lee Hill command under five million per year. Is Harrison worth more than those players? Sure, but he isn't among interior pressure players like Geno Atkins, Ndamukong Suh or Aaron Donald, either.
The Jets could be willing to make Harrison the highest-paid nose tackle in the league, but if he gets significantly more money elsewhere then the team should let him go and still feel pretty confident with their defensive line. (Four-year deal, average/year $5.5 million)
Those contracts would account for roughly $37.5 million in cap space, not leaving the Jets all that much for additional free agents at other spots. They might be able to gain back another $3-5 million off that $37.5 million in 2016 if they can set up contracts with Fitzpatrick and Harrison that give them a little extra leeway in year-one of their respective deals.
Wilkerson's 2016 cap number could drop dramatically in 2016 if the team can find a way to sign him to a long-term extension. Should all else fail, a Brandon Marshall restructure is the "break-the-glass" move for the Jets if they feel like they need more breathing room.